Story of how an award winning writer, Beryl Bainbridge, became a fixture in Camden

Thursday, 8th July 2010

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Published: 08 July, 2010
by DAN CARRIER

BERYL Bainbridge’s Camden Town house famously had a stuffed water buffalo in the hallway, which visitors would have to squeeze past. 

But it was just the first of many curios in her packed terraced home in Albert Street that visitors would encounter. 

Beryl, who died of cancer at her home on Friday, aged 75, had a love for knick-knacks. In her front room, with its distinctive cast-iron fireplace, from which she would light a cigarette, was a line with plaster saints and other Catholic iconography. There were sailors’ caps and Greek statues, more stuffed animals, a life-size model of Neville Chamberlain, a beautiful boat made by her grandchildren from odds and ends – and each wall was covered in their artwork too.

It was the physical manifestation of her ­story-telling. She loved having these objects around her, and talking about where they came from and how she had got them. Beryl likened them to sentences in her books, telling stories through their presence. 

It was never-ending – she once marvelled at the things you could buy in a 99p shop in Camden High Street, thrilled by the purchase of a Cyberman doll which was placed on a windowsill on the stairs and then given to a visitor.

Beryl was born in Liverpool in 1932. As a child she appeared on the radio, and then, aged 16, she joined the Liverpool Rep and worked as an actor, once appearing in Coronation Street. She wrote her first book, ­Harriet Said, in the 1950s but it was turned down by publishers, eventually to be printed in 1972.

She married Austin Davies in 1954 and they had two children, Aaron and Jojo, but they split and later she had a child, Ruby, with writer Alan Sharpe.

In 1963, she moved to Albert Street, Camden Town. Unlike her close friend and confidante, fellow writer Bernice Rubens, once she had moved in, Beryl stayed put. 

After Rubens’ death, Beryl would revel in recalling things her friend had said or done, including the idea that Bernice moved every time her oven needed cleaning, as it was a chore she could not face doing.

Beryl became a fixture of the area, a regular in its shops and cafés, always on hand for a gossip and ready to offer friendly advice to her neighbours. She enjoyed walking through its streets, often ending up at St Pancras Old Church. 

Beryl cared. Her neighbours recall her handwritten notes to them, and she also railed against injustice. The plight of a neighbour’s son, who was unemployed with a young family and struggling to make ends meet tortured her conscience, and Beryl would express her concerns in a voice torn with worry. It meant she could be venomous in her criticism of politicians and politics.

Beryl had suffered from ill health, the toll of a lifetime’s smoking causing her to have heart problems and then cancer. Her family implored her to quit but she would smoke a crafty cigarette in front of friends and then plead for her vice to be kept secret. 

But she was also well aware of the damage it was doing – her computer was at the top of the house, and she cursed the time it took for her to climb the stairs.

Other medication she had been prescribed, she believed, lessened her ability to write. Her final book, the ending of which she dictated in the days before she passed away, illustrated the extent to which she was suffering from writer’s block. While in the past she could write effortlessly and finish a novel in a matter of months, she had been working on it for four years: it wasn’t that Beryl didn’t know what was going to happen, she said, it was just getting the words out. She also revealed she had first thought of the plot back in 1968 – it was about the assassination of Robert Kennedy. 

She called the book The Girl In The Polka Dot Dress. 

She had been in America when Robert Kennedy died, driving across the States with a boyfriend. She ­had been struck by the description of a girl who was said to have witnessed the killing but had never been questioned. Beryl even believed the woman being sought may  have been her. 

The use of the Kennedy assassination was true to Beryl’s form of drawing on  historical events for her fiction, from Scott of the Antarctic to the sinking of the Titanic, Dr Johnson and the Crimean war. 

And her back-catalogue is testimony to her skill. Shortlisted five times for the Man Booker prize, twice winner of the Whitbread, the Guardian fiction prize, and made a Dame in 2000, she also wrote non-fiction and plays.

Other work included pieces for the radio. In 1983 she re-traced the steps taken by JB Priestley when he wrote his seminal book on the Depression 50 years previously, and recalled going back to her native Liverpool. She said she found it depressing, and accused Thatcher of ripping the heart out of her proud city. 

She returned again recently, and was just as critical. She claimed the renovated  Albert Dock, where Victorian warehouses were converted into boutiques and nightclubs, was ugly and didn’t respect the area’s unique history.

Tributes – ‘She wore her celebrity lightly’

TOM MILNE, former owner of the Mornington Arms pub in Camden Town: “She was a regular at the Mornington Arms and on the occasions when some dignitaries from her world of writing came late at night and all the off-licences were closed, she would come and get a bottle of whisky from me and replace it the next day. She used to stop for a chat in the street and she told me about her working-class Liverpool background. When I’d walk the dog after closing the pub I’d see her tapping away on her typewriter at two or three in the morning and I thought, does she ever go to bed?”

MONICA WELLS, photographer, lived in flat below Beryl’s house: “She was always kind when you had a problem, but often in a witty way, and when she used to keep an eye on the place when I was away. She was always involved in the community – not reclusive, always helping everyone and she knew all the gossip. She didn’t sleep much; she would get up at six in the morning and creep around in her slippers so as not to wake me as she had creaky floors. When she had writer’s block she’d get on the first bus she saw and stay on it until the end of the line and then come back.” 

Neighbour MO SRINIVASAN, lives in street parallel to Beryl’s (Mornington Terrace): “I met her in the newsagent around the corner. I was delivering papers for them. The manager asked me if I knew who she was and I said I had seen her on the TV a while back. We got acquainted and one day she invited me to a party at her home. We would also go to restaurants sometimes and to Tommy Flynn’s pub on the high street. She took my mum and me to her flat and showed us all the letters she received from friends. My mum was very impressed with her. She was a great friend of the people.”

GERMANO CORREIA, manager of Ferreira Deli in Delancey Street: “She used to come in here to buy her cigarettes and newspapers and she often talked to me. She was a great person to have in the community; very kind to everyone and well known by lots of people around Camden Town. I didn’t know she had cancer. Someone told me on Friday that she had died and on Saturday I opened the Guardian and saw the obituary. I will keep the paper out of respect for her.”

FATHER BRUCE BATSTONE, Reverend at St Pancras Old Church and a neighbour of Beryl: ”I’ve lived on Albert Street for four years and she lived here for 10 times that. She always had a lot of time for everyone. What was also striking was that she wore her celebrity – I suppose that’s what it was – so very lightly. If you met her you’d have no idea that she was such a significant person in the literary world of our country. She was always prepared to give people a second chance and see the best side of people. That shows that she must have been somebody whose life at times must have been not very easy. She could see that human life was complex and having read some of her books I can see that many of her characters reflect that.”

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